BRUSSELS, Belgium, Oct. 23, 2000 (IPS)à‚–Austria’s threat to block the Czech Republic’s accession to the European Union (EU) over concerns about nuclear safety has underscored the need for international standards for atomic energy, says Friends of the Earth-Europe (FoEE).
In recent weeks, Austrian anti-nuclear demonstrators have repeatedly blockaded Czech-Austrian border crossings to protest the start-up this month of the Temelin nuclear power plant, located 50 kilometers from the Austrian frontier.
While Czech authorities say that modifications to the Soviet-era plant by Westinghouse and other contractors have brought it into line with international safety standards, protestors argue that the hybrid makes it even more dangerous.
The controversy over the Temelin plant has prompted FoEE, a Brussels-based environmental pressure group, to step up its lobbying of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, to push for clearly defined standards governing nuclear power plants in the 15 EU member states and would-be member states of Eastern Europe.
“We have to be clear about this: We are talking about the most dangerous nuclear power plants in the world, like Kozloduy in Bulgaria or Bohunice in Slovakia, that are still on the grid in candidate countries. We want to shed light on how irresponsibly the EU is handling the issue,” Dr. Martin Rocholl, FoEE’s political coordinator, said in a statement.
In a FoEE position paper submitted to an EU working group on nuclear safety this month, the group says it sees a danger that nuclear power plants in Eastern European countries will be held to a lower standard.
“We demand that current EU standards be applied when assessing nuclear safety in candidate countries and we demand a transparent nuclear policy, involving the public in the East and the West,” said Patricia Lorenz, FoEE campaigner and author of the paper, “How Safe is Safe.”
Double standards for safety “are not only immoral, but would inhibit progress in nuclear safety in the EU. Instead, Europe needs clearly defined and agreed safety targets…case by case safety assessment without clear rules is not acceptable,” she writes.
Nuclear safety is not a part of the acquis communautaire, the body of common EU legislation: the EU member states set their own standards.
Asked about the safety of the Temelin plant and whether the EU would act to prevent Austrian protestors from blocking the Czech borders, a spokesman for the European Commission told a regular briefing last week that there “is no acquis on this matter, so the Commission isn’t in the position to study that nuclear power plant. There are no standards for nuclear safety that apply throughout Europe.”
Over the period 1991-1999 the EU committed 913 million euros to international efforts to improve nuclear safety levels in Central and Eastern Europe and the NIS (newly independent states of the former Soviet Union). A total of 950 projects have been financed, 450 projects are ongoing and another 200 are being prepared.
The EU Commission’s approach to nuclear safety aims to support the candidate countries and NIS in their efforts to improve operational safety and to enhance regulatory systems; to shut down and decommission, as early as possible, reactors that cannot be upgraded to internationally accepted levels of safety at a reasonable cost and to replace them with alternative energy sources; and to upgrade nuclear plants of more recent design.
But EU nuclear safety upgrading programs and several bilateral agreements have not solved this basic question of standards, writes Lorenz: “The often demanded ‘Western safety level’ or ‘internationally acceptable safety level’ or even ‘high nuclear safety’ are still empty phrases without a clear technical definition.”
In September, the first Council session (composed of ministerial-level representatives from the 15 member states) discussing the question of nuclear safety standards for candidate countries took place. It is known as the Working Party on Atomic Questions (WPAC).
FoEE is lobbying the working party to ensure that no safety double standard is endorsed. Apart from the worst-case-scenario – – a nuclear meltdown such as occurred in Chernobyl in 1986 à‚– lower standards for the East “could give the nuclear industry in existing member states the argument that they do not have to maintain or increase their safety level, because new member states’ nuclear power plants are allowed to operate at lower standards.”
WPAC has been mandated to prepare a study on how to judge nuclear safety levels before the end of the year.
The start-up of Temelin, which went ahead despite strong opposition from Austria, has been welcomed by the European Atomic Forum (FORATOM), the Brussels-based trade association for the nuclear industry in Europe.
“The pressures brought to bear on Czech leaders have been so great that they could well have taken the easy way out a long time ago. They could have given in to Austrian demands for the project to be stopped à‚– a tempting option that may have given the republic a smoother passage into the EU,” said the forum’s Secretary General Dr. Wolf J. Schmidt-K
FORATOM has identified three fundamental principles with respect to nuclear energy questions in the accession countries that it wishes to see respected:
- “Sovereign states have the right to determine their energy options, recognizing the important contribution that nuclear energy makes to sustainable development.
- “Standards of safety, compliant with the basic safety principles of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), should be applied by the states, with regard to the design, construction and operation of their nuclear power plants.
- “The role and authority of independent and competent national nuclear regulators must be recognized and supported.”
FoEE argues that IAEA standards “are insufficient and lower than those applied in EU-member states and therefore cannot be accepted as a guideline for defining the safety level for new EU member states.”
There are no sanctions for member states that fall short of implementing IAEA recommendations, it says. “Furthermore, the recommendations are very vague and amount to the lowest common denominator in nuclear safety,” writes Lorenz.
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